We’d agreed to the terms and conditions. How to accept and decline an invitation of touch. What to do in case of accidental erection. We’d ticked the box that confirmed we were clean, contagion-free, sound of mind people. Pierre roamed the yoga studio with a disarming smile. He was there to enforce the rules: platonic touch. No funny business. Most people in the studio had paired off, their bodies locked together on those tired mandala cushions. Some lay hidden under white duvets like dead unmoving things.
I did not have a cuddle partner. In the studio mirrors, my reflection looked inoffensive: a smiling mouth, hands behind my back like a student waiting her turn. It was getting embarrassing, standing alone like that.
In another corner, a middle-aged man in flannel pyjamas was also on his own. He looked like a cartoon bear, friendly and two-dimensional. I didn’t completely hate the idea of sharing a cuddle with him so I walked over and asked if he’d travelled far to be here.
‘No,’ he said.
‘I’m just in Putney myself.’
His grey eyes widened. ‘Oh, no. You really shouldn’t be giving out personal information. I could be a crazy person.’
I laughed. ‘Are you?’
‘No. I work in banking.’
‘No crazies in banking?’
He shrugged. I asked if he wanted to cuddle.
Avoiding all the limbs and heads, I stepped out of the studio and the instructor Pierre followed behind, saying, ‘Wait.’ He looked like so many men I’d met before on sun holidays. Blond hair pulled back, a huge tattoo mistake on his arm. I had taken to bed my share of Pierres, making undignified noises under slow-moving ceiling fans.
He said, ‘Give it a chance, Homa.’
‘The thing is, I feel like I’m in school again and no one wants to pick me. Do you get what I mean? I don’t think this scene is for me.’
He scratched his head. ‘I can’t stop you if you’re not into it. If you’re not feeling the vibe. But maybe you’d prefer the one-to-one sessions? With a professional cuddler?’
He went on to explain that he and the new yoga instructor Karen Myers were certified cuddlers. They had spent every weekend last summer training in the Cotswolds and they’d passed a written and practical test before receiving their certifications. Their profiles were available on the studio website. All the information was there.
‘That might be more your speed.’
‘Thanks,’ I said, putting on my big winter coat and gloves. ‘I’ll pass, though.’
Outside the studio, it was cold. Dead pine trees littered pavements, their needles scattered about like a premonition. The most depressing part of this scene was the cold betrayal of it – how a short while ago, these trees had been nurtured and loved. Decorated and crowned – symbols of good will. But now, they were hauled out with the rest of the trash. It was difficult to get into the new beginnings spirit with all those pine trees lying half-dead on city pavements.
The next evening, I was booked in for a transvaginal scan. My legs were spread apart on the examination table facing a large window. The blinds were not fully shut and I could see the warm glow of office windows across the street.
‘Do you mind pulling the blinds down all the way?’ I said to the technician.
She tried several times but they kept getting stuck in the same place, a few inches above the windowsill.
She shrugged. ‘No one can see. I’m dimming the lights.’
This picture felt familiar: the vague romance of it, with the lights dimmed and the technician spreading gel over the long ultrasound probe. A slow explosion of pain as she moved it inside me. I thought how the test was a fair re-enactment of my recent sexual experiences, cold and achy with forensic focus.
‘Relax your buttocks onto the end of the table,’ she said. ‘I’m just taking pictures of the right ovary now.’ There was a prize in that ovary: a ‘chocolate cyst’, two centimetres in diameter. At first, when the gynaecologist had said chocolate cyst, it had made me think of love, something you gave to your Valentine. I had Googled the term and learnt that it was just old menstrual blood in a fluid-filled sac. The melted chocolatelike interior of the cyst gave it that name.
More than the images of the cyst, it had frightened me to read that at any moment, it could rupture. Its contents could spill out and pollute the ovary causing a potentially life-threatening infection. Vigorous sex could rupture the chocolate cyst. It really could do that, and it was difficult not to have this image in mind, whenever a date asked, ‘So where should we go next?’
The technician said she was taking the last picture and the pain felt large, even as she slowly removed the probe. She gave me some thin blue tissues to clean the jelly mess she’d left inside and that felt familiar too, like other Friday nights. ‘You can use the paper from the table. If you need more,’ the technician said. ‘The results will be ready in a few days.’ Walking home, I deleted all the dating apps from my phone and later, in bed, I read about professional cuddling.
In real life, Karen Myers was exactly what I was looking for. Warm and motherly. She had an American accent and tight red curls. Her flowy top and Birkenstock sandals made me think of an old person at a music festival, dancing. She moved her pale hands in the air when she spoke and she had a lot to say with her big American enthusiasm. She told about her move from Oregon to London. Her blue eyes lit up, talking about her Boston terrier Koko, how he was adjusting to life here. She knitted sweaters for him to wear in winter. I liked the way her cheeks dimpled when she smiled. She poured me a cup of lemongrass tea. We were sitting at a table in the café part of the studio.
‘Why did you choose me instead of Pierre?’
I could not tell her: Pierre is dumb but secretly, I want to fuck him. So. ‘You’ve got a warm energy. I could tell from your photo and profile.’ She smiled broadly. ‘I get what you mean. We don’t want to touch someone we don’t feel connected to, do we? Pierre tells me you were at one of our group sessions?’ ‘Yes… It wasn’t for me.’
‘It isn’t always. It can seem a bit weird. I can totally see that. Some people just don’t take to it. You know? It’s like my president. If we can call him that. You either love him or you hate him.’ She paused. ‘For the record, I hate him.’
‘Oh, OK.’ We laughed. ‘Could you tell me, Ho-ma, is that how I say your name?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘What’s led you to us specifically, sweetheart?’ She leaned into the table.
Years ago, after my mother died, a therapist asked this question too. What’s brought you here? I told her it was this or swinging my legs on the edge of some cliff. She looked at me with grave concern and for the rest of the session I had to convince her that I wasn’t suicidal.
I said to Karen, ‘I used to do yoga at the studio and I got an email in the New Year about a new sort of class and, yeah. I’d rather not date. I’ve got no inclination for that. But I still like being touched.’
Karen nodded her head. Her eyes were shut, her thin lids pale and streaked pink. ‘Exactly, honey. The oxytocin that’s released into the blood when we touch – it keeps us healthy.’ She opened her eyes, her full blue gaze on me. ‘Touch keeps us alive. It’s how we connect with each other.’
And here she placed her hand gently over mine.
It was warm and fine and I let it linger there. She gave me a document to read outlining the terms and conditions of her service. They were the same as the rules for group sessions, drawing attention to the importance of consent and hygiene and being contagion-free. There was more about police involvement, how they would call the police without hesitation if personal security was called into question. I ticked the necessary boxes and signed the form.
She said, ‘Alright! I have time now for a session. Do you want to get started?’
She led me into a small dimly lit room. Waterfalls and chirping birds played out of a speaker. We took our shoes off and left them to one side. The walls were painted a dark blue, like the depths of an uncertain dream. She sat cross legged on some cushions and she gestured for me to sit next to her.
‘Do you like your job?’ she said, rubbing my shoulders. ‘I’m crying less now, so it’s getting better. I work in law.’
‘Oh, darling,’ she said. ‘That doesn’t sound very nice at all. Crying at work. You deserve to feel loved. And appreciated.’
My body tensed up as she rubbed my back. The intimacy felt contrived. I thought of men in suits. Thick, gropy hands. Hairy knuckles and slippery poles. ‘Would you prefer that I stopped touching?’ she said, perhaps sensing my discomfort. ‘We could talk.’ ‘Maybe that would be good. To start.’ When Karen spoke about her life, I felt myself relax, just listening.
She told me a story about Koko pulling down ornaments from the Christmas tree and the whole thing toppling down on him. But it was a fake tree, so no harm done. She had shipped it over, all the way from Oregon and kept it in a box under her staircase until the end of November.
‘Do you celebrate Christmas?’ she said. ‘I used to. My mother was into that. My father not so much.’ I looked at her necklace, a lovely gold locket in the shape of a sun. I asked about the necklace so that we weren’t talking about my mother. ‘My boyfriend gave it to me,’ she said, ‘to keep me warm.’
Karen put her arm across my shoulder like we were at the movies. ‘Can I give you a cuddle?’ she asked, with her small pink smile. ‘OK.’
For the rest of the sixty-minute session, she held me and neither of us spoke, until she said, ‘I’m afraid our time’s run out, sweetheart.’
When she detached herself from me, I felt cold. Gently, she guided me to the place where I’d left my shoes and I struggled to put them back on, my left foot somehow missing the shoe completely. She asked if I was going home after this, and I told her no, I was meeting some friends for dinner along the Southbank.
‘Oh, exciting!’ Outside the studio room, the lights felt bright. It was like coming out of a fog. I held onto the wall for balance. I put on my coat and gloves, ready to leave. Karen said, ‘You need to pay me, darling.’
It was like swimming, those sessions with Karen Myers in the blue studio room. My shoulders loosened, every part of me fluid and endless. It was my third visit with Karen that week, and from the moment I took off my shoes, I thought about how it would all end in sixty minutes.
‘What’s making you blue?’
‘I’m worried about my ultra-sound results. The chocolate cyst. It might be bigger.’
‘Oh, honey,’ she said. Her tight red curls smelt of sage. ‘You’ve got to think positive! You win half the battle by staying positive. Let’s both be super positive together, OK? Can you do that?’
Karen swaddled me with her long pale arms. They were soft but strong. She held me like that, and for brief moment when I shut my eyes, I thought it was my mother holding me. ‘Honey, are you alright?’ She brushed my tears from her thin wrist. ‘Yes. Sorry.’ ‘Don’t be sorry! Never say sorry for crying!’ ‘OK. Not sorry.’ I laughed, wiping tears from the tip of my nose. ‘I’m afraid our time is up.’
A bright energy moved through me, walking home after the session, remembering how, for a brief moment, I’d resurrected my mother in the blue studio room. It was raining and the pavements glistened under streetlamps. They were mostly clear of trees now. Wandsworth Council had sent an email. UNWANTED TREES. It said to leave them out after six-thirty in the evening and they would come in the night and collect them. A block away from my flat: a small pine tree, browning, half-dead, lying on its side. I dragged it back to my garden, used a shovel from the shed and planted it there, in the middle of that small patch of lawn.
Irene was in the flat, picking up fresh clothes. She worked at one of those law firms that didn’t believe in a work-life balance and spent nights sleeping in her office, but her salary was double mine. ‘You’ve got dirt on your knees,’ she said, looking down at my legs, concern across her face. ‘Are you OK?’
I smiled. ‘I was just doing some gardening.’
‘At this hour?’ She looked out the window to see the back garden, but it was all darkness. I thought of the lone pine tree out there, its roots taking to the lawn, extending deep into the earth. Strengthened, born again. ‘Are you dating someone new?’ Irene asked. ‘No. Why?’ She shrugged her narrow shoulders. ‘You seem happy.’
The landlady got in touch. She wrote in an email:
Homa and Irene. Happy New Year. Did you have a restful holiday? I hope so! The neighbour Vivienne Broad says you’ve planted a pine tree in the back garden??? How Bohemian! While I can appreciate that you’re living in the flat and the garden is of course at your disposal, I must ask you to remove the tree. As you know the garden is a modest size already and I’m afraid it’ll make it seem even smaller with that tree. We are planning to sell in a year or so (depending on the market!) and we don’t want to make the already small garden appear smaller. You must understand that. And I’m not sure about how it might affect the other plants, bringing in a foreign tree. Might it spread some plant disease? I can recommend a place on Putney High Street that sells lovely potted flowers…’
After work, I dug the pine tree out of the back garden and dragged it to the pavement in front of the building, left it there for collection. That same night I woke to terrible stomach cramps and had to rush to the toilet where I vomited. My heart was doing sprints, thinking it was the chocolate cyst, breaking free of its barrier, spreading its poison.
I remembered my mother, those last few months of her life and the weary look in her eyes when she’d said that she just wanted the vomiting to stop. More than anything else. She said she didn’t know what was what anymore. Inside, outside. Her body no longer felt like a solid thing and that terrified her. She’d looked at me, pleading. She would rather just go. If I’d let her. She couldn’t take more vomiting.
The next morning, I left the house for my follow-up gynaecology appointment. The half-dead pine tree was already gone. If it weren’t for the landlady’s email, I would’ve thought it had never happened, that night I’d spent digging into the ground, believing that I could resurrect the tree.
In the waiting room of the surgery, my stomach still felt sore but the nausea had at least dissipated. I picked up a newspaper from the side table. On the front page: Migrants discovered in a lorry. Detained and transferred to the Home Office. They would be sent back. Where? Somewhere else. Outside. It startled me when a nurse called me through, saying my name like a question. Ho-ma Shaffi?
The gynaecologist looked at the large computer screen with the results of the ultrasound there. She said the chocolate cyst had grown to eight centimetres. She smiled sympathetically.
‘Surgery is the best option. If we leave it, there’s a risk the cyst could rupture and its contents could leak into the ovary and pelvis. And there’s a large simple cyst in the left ovary so there’s contortions to think about…’
When the gynaecologist spoke, I imagined Karen Myers in the room with her long pale arms and the golden sun around her neck, keeping us warm. I agreed to have the surgery. They would send a letter in the post with details. It would probably be a few weeks.
‘Thanks for fitting me in…’
‘Of course, honey.’
‘It’s been a really shit day.’
Karen led me straight into the blue room and I asked if she could put her arms around me, and she did. For a while we rocked together and it felt again like I was swimming.
‘I need surgery. To remove the chocolate cyst.’
‘Surgery is nothing these days. Just a small incision, and they stitch you back up. Bam. Done.’ She put her hand over my head and it felt like she was wiping my thoughts away. I wanted her to go further back and clear memories of my mother, those last few days of her life, asking if it was me in the room with her. I was told to keep my distance. Her immune system was too weak and she might catch something. She didn’t recognise me in the mask and gloves. Where is my Homa? She needed me, needed my touch to survive.
Karen’s hand lingered on my forehead. ‘You feel a bit warm,’ she said. ‘Are you feeling alright, honey?’ ‘Yes. Just a sore stomach. I was ill in the night but I’m feeling much better now.’ Karen, stopped rocking. She retracted her arms and moved her legs back. She stood and walked across the room. ‘I’m afraid, honey, we can’t continue.’
I laughed, thinking she was joking.
‘You said you were sick last night.’
‘You might be contagious. I have to protect myself. It’s in the rules if you remember…’
I stood from the mandala cushions and felt unstable, like I was rocking on a small dingy in the middle of some vast greyness. I moved closer to her. ‘But I need this. I need to be held…I—’
‘It’s not just about you, though, sweetheart.’
A lump in my throat. Everything spinning. Karen threw her hands up. ‘Look, I’m sorry. Really. But you could have a bug and be contagious…’
‘I’m not contagious,’ I shouted. I took another step closer to her, and her pink mouth flattened. ‘I’m going to leave the room now.’ She tried to move to the door but I blocked her. ‘Please, don’t,’ I pleaded. ‘This isn’t working anymore,’ she said, all the warmth from her gone. ‘Get out of my way.’ The walls that had felt fluid moments ago were solidifying, hard and unmoving. I threw my arms around her waist and tackled her to the ground. ‘Stop. Stop that. Get your hands off me…’
She reached for her sun necklace and kept pressing it. I realised when Pierre came into the room that the necklace was a security measure to protect herself from people like me. Pierre separated us with his big tattoo arms. I thought how I should have just chosen Pierre, had sex with him and woken up with a sore pelvis. They agreed not to call the police if I left and promised not to return. ‘Can I at least put my shoes back on?’ They watched me tie my laces and put on my big coat. Instead of leaving then, I walked around the studio lobby exhaling deeply and dramatically, blowing air out of my mouth. ‘Haaaaaah. Haaaaaaaah. Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.’
I touched the walls and spat onto the floor, and then I licked their big reception desk, their pens— one at a time. Pierre and Karen watched, unblinking. Finally satisfied, I pulled up the hood from my coat. ‘I’m not contagious,’ I said, strengthened, deranged. Outside, the air felt fresh. I breathed it in. Bags of rubbish were lined up on the pavement under a big night sky. One of the bags had been torn open, its contents of banana peels and sanitary pads scattered. A fox was sniffing a different rubbish bag, poking at it, testing it. What did it hope to find inside? I stopped walking. The fox turned its head and looked directly at me. A moment of challenge, our eyes on each other. Slowly, the fox backed away from the bag, trotted up the street, and disappeared.
Words by Haleh Agar.
Haleh Agar is a novelist, short story writer and essayist. Her debut novel about a fractured family, OUT OF TOUCH, will be published by W&N (Orion, Hachette) on April 2nd 2020. Her short story, ‘Not Contagious’ was Highly Commended by the Costa Short Story Award. She won the Brighton Prize for a piece of flash fiction, and her narrative essay ‘On Writing Ethnic Stories’ won the London Magazine’s inaugural essay competition. She is currently working on her second novel. You can follow her on Twitter @HalehAgar
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